Over the weekend I’ve been thinking about Tea Party Nation’s convention in Nashville and some of the criticism which has been levelled at it. A lot of that criticism focuses on the fact that the organizers are charging a lot, paying Sarah Palin a lot, and making a profit on the event. This made me wonder when people on the right who supposedly believe in free enterprise and individual liberty decided that making money was a bad thing.
It’s not just the convention. Throughout the discontented masses of newly energized activists there’s a suspicion of any group which has links to corporate interests or is supported by large donations from foundations or companies. FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and the Tea Party Express have all been the targets of criticism because they are seen as sellouts or shills for special interests. Yet what’s so wrong about bringing money or influence to a cause? If a group or a company or a rich individual happens to share your interests, why is it wrong to benefit from his largess? If a wealthy foundation or even a health insurance company will give you the platform to reach a wider audience with your message, why is that bad? They may be using you, but you’re also using them, and if your interests coincide even temporarily then you both benefit and if you’re sincere your efforts will do more good than they would if you were just protesting on a street corner without the money to get on TV or gather larger crowds.
It seems to me that the new activism of the Tea Party has to some degree become infected with the anti-capitalism of the protest culture of the left, and I’m pretty sure that’s not a positive influence. If we accept that the enemy of the movement is the out-of-control state and its corporate allies, that does not mean that every politician and every business is an enemy. The policies which the Tea Parties object to are as harmful to many businesses as they are to individuals and there are plenty of politicians who remember that votes got them elected, not just money. Not all businesses are part of the cabal which wields power and there are always ambitious politicians looking for a new power base. Populism and opposition to the status quo can be a powerful political force which can make your career.
Causes need money, and sooner or later every movement is going to need allies with deep pocketbooks. The trick is picking allies whose interests are close to your own, and it shouldn’t be difficult, because they will come knocking at your door, realizing that your group is one they can work with.
In the same way, attracting some opportunistic politicians who want to promote their careers while promoting your issues is not a bad thing, so long as you remain true to your beliefs and hold the politicians accountable. The media has declared that Sarah Palin has hijacked the Tea Party movement, but it’s just as true that the Tea Party movement has hijacked her and that she’s tailoring her message to appeal to their interests.
In these relationships both sides benefit.
So today, in the aftermath of the Tea Party Nation Convention, I received an email from the Tea Party Patriots, who are one of the more legitimate, grassrootsy Tea Party groups. They’re not well funded and are mainly just a bunch of activists all over the country who are organizing small protests in combination with other groups. They’re all chuffed because the Tea Party Nation folks had their convention first and got so much media attention and they’re afraid it will cut into their popularity and take away from their their convention which is coming up on April 15th.
In their email they write about Tea Party groups selling out to politically connected and well-financed interests:
The Tea Party Movement started because of these tactics and we will not be used like this. We are smarter than that and we will call out any one and any organization who tries to undermine the grassroots movement known as the Tea Party Movement.
The truth is that if they want the press coverage they can get it most easily by forming alliances with groups that have money and can draw prominent speakers and get media attention. That doesn’t necessarily mean selling out. Those groups need the grassroots folks on the ground too much to exploit them in any way which would alienate them. And ultimately you are responsible for your own integrity. If you don’t like what your allies are doing, call them on it and sever ties. Just make sure that your own behavior and activities are above reproach.
In a related phenomenon, Ron Paul supporters make a big deal of how they had the Tea Party idea first. But you can’t really own an idea or own a movement, even if you got there first. And you can’t take someone’s movement away or hijack it because you decide to join it and brought a lot of friends or a lot of money with you. If the movement is authentic and if it is driven by real issues then it is going to continue and gain strength.
Obviously the Tea Party movement is diverse and it’s made up of lots of groups with different strategies and interests and resources. But for it to work and grow people need to be willing to form alliances, and that means they can’t afford to let the anti-corporate, anti-establishment attitude run away with them. It’s self-indulgent and self-defeating. Righteousness and ideological purity may make you feel great as you sit in the local coffee house plotting revolution with your little cell of like-minded individuals, but it gets in the way of actually accomplishing anything. It’s an egotistical delusion. To succeed you need to put ego aside and be prepared to not be the center of attention and devote your efforts to making the cause itself what matters, not yourself or your particular group.
That’s called maturity and the Tea Party movement is very young. If it’s going to mature it’s going to change and people are going to have to make some compromises along the way. That includes putting aside ego and giving up some control and accepting the help of older groups and foundations and even allying with icky things like politicians and corporations, because that’s how you build influence. Just stick to your principles and lead by example and make the right deals with the right people. You might end up changing the world.